The Pat Vergne fiasco will have its day in court.
Culminating months of speculation over the most divisive controversy to grip Del Mar in decades, the city’s former chief lifeguard and director of community services filed suit in San Diego Superior Court last week after city leaders declined to settle a $5 million claim for damages he submitted in December.
Meanwhile, county prosecutors have decided not to bring charges against Vergne or the two city employees with whom he was fired last year for alleged financial wrongdoing.
“Based on the investigation submitted, there is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that crimes were committed,” Capt. John Maryon wrote Feb. 2 in an email.
Vergne’s lawsuit—written on Jan. 23 and entered on Jan. 30—individually accuses City Manager Scott Huth and all five city councilmembers of defamation, civil conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, age discrimination and wrongful termination. Vergne has asked Judge Kenneth J. Medel for a jury trial and will seek punitive damages “in an amount to be determined at trial,” as well as general damages, compensation for lost earning capacity, past and future earnings and benefits, attorney’s fees, court fees and any other relief the court deems fit.
Vergne’s 37-year career with Del Mar met a shocking end in August when he and two of his subordinates were fired after a four-month internal investigation catalogued 95 allegedly improper transactions between 2015 and 2017 relating to waived rental fees at the Powerhouse Community Center, payroll records and use of a city credit card—combining, officials say, to deprive city coffers of more than $200,000.
Treading similar ground as his December claim, Vergne’s lawsuit describes a pattern of harassment that goes back several years while depicting his suspension and the city’s investigation as a “fraudulent campaign” designed to justify his ouster.
“The Defendants knew that [Vergne] had simply been following previously-established protocols and procedures that the City itself had been approving for years, but chose to use these claimed violations as pretext to wrongfully terminate and discredit” him, according to the lawsuit.
Huth and the city council knowingly made false statements that depicted Vergne in a criminal light, according to the lawsuit, including Huth’s claims to this newspaper in August that Vergne had interfered with the investigation, colluded with another employee on erroneous overtime claims, and allowed a third employee to double-bill the city as a private contractor.
The lawsuit also alleges that city officials “fraudulently induced” Vergne’s cooperation in their investigation by promising to keep his statements private, knowing all along that they were going to give their findings to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which launched a criminal investigation that concluded last week with no charges brought.
Del Mar also violated state law that protects municipal employees from discrimination, according to the lawsuit, which claims city officials fired Vergne “because he was 56 years old” so they could replace him with “younger, less qualified candidates.”
“Defendants conspired against and terminated [Vergne] because he had resisted and reported past harassment and retaliation by Defendant Huth, and because [Vergne] was over the age of 40,” according to the lawsuit. “The Defendants had no legitimate basis on which to terminate [Vergne], as he had been an exemplary employee and was an involved member of the Del Mar community for decades.”
A few days before Vergne filed his lawsuit, the city announced it had promoted 44-year-old Jon Edelbrock—a 25-year veteran of the department—to fill the position.
Vergne’s lawsuit departs from the December claim on one key point: it says city officials targeted Vergne, in part, because of “his prior reporting of unlawful conduct.”
Court documents filed so far offer no information on what “unlawful conduct” Vergne had reported. Reached by phone on Jan. 30, Michael P. Lewis, one of Vergne’s Los Angeles-based lawyers, declined to comment.
City Attorney Leslie Devaney did not respond to a request for comment. The city had not filed a response to the lawsuit as of Feb 6.
A case management conference is set for Aug. 3.
Throughout the controversy, the city council has stood its ground as scores of longtime residents rallied to Vergne’s defense, hailing him as the most loyal and well-regarded employee Del Mar has ever known and blasting councilmembers for exposing the city to such a large financial risk.
Speaking at the council’s Feb. 5 deliberations to renew Huth’s contract, Mayor Dwight Worden—a retired lawyer who served as Del Mar’s city attorney three decades ago—remained unfazed by the looming legal battle.
“Pat has chosen to take this to court, and that’s not a bad thing. A court is the forum where we do resolve these kind of things ... and it happens in an environment where facts matter and circumstances are controlled,” he said. “I’ve reviewed this in detail. I’ve been a lawyer for 30 years. I’ve worked for every city around. I have every confidence in the city’s legal position. But just like you, I’ve got to wait for that process to unfold.”
In the meantime, he said, the focus in Del Mar needs to shift toward repairing the damage that has been done.
“I can just tell that for a lot of you, no matter what we say about the Pat Vergne affair—we know facts you don’t know, or this is wrong and this is right—it’s not working, the trust is impaired,” Worden said. “To heal that, I think, take that concern you have and say, ‘OK, it’s going to be resolved in court.’ Let’s trust that that process will be fair and start preparing all of ourselves—you and me—to accept the outcome.”